Power Rangers: Getting Nostalgia Wrong

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When I was growing up the three pieces of media that most influenced my life were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, and the Power Rangers. Had I grown up in a more gender-understanding time, My Little Pony would likely also be part of that mix, but as it stands I wasn’t allowed to like that one. We live in a world now where the name of the game is nostalgia. All forms of media, especially movies, cost so damn much to make now that having your project bomb can be devastating to the studio producing it. Because of that, studios are betting their money on nostalgia properties from the time older generations were kids since they already have built-in fan bases with disposable income from which to gauge a reasonable expectation of viewership. Sometimes this gives us great things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the return of Star Wars. Other times it makes god-awful shit like the latest crop of DC superhero movies and anything Michael Bay has touched that involved a licensed property.

If you look at all the things that failed over the years to win the hearts of those nostalgic for their original forms, they tend to follow a similar patterns in their mistakes; mostly that they focus too heavily on the visual aesthetic of bringing the old property to a modern age while pretty much ignoring the particular heart and soul of the original that the fans fell in love with. For a great example, the Transformers themselves in Bay’s movies are an amazing spectacle of CGI achievement. I mean, who among us in our youths would have ever dreamed of the Transformers looking that cool? But the films fell flat because the kept the Transformers as background noise so they could focus on Shia Labeouf’s quest to get in Meghan Fox’s pants. Just making our old stuff look new isn’t going to cut it, and I fear we’re in for more of the same with the Power Rangers movie.

After I watched the first trailer for this movie, I was left feeling more aggravated than anything else. I remember tweeting at the time, “Is this a movie about the kids from the Breakfast Club getting super powers?”. Nothing about what I was seeing felt like a Power Ranger’s movie. With the new trailer, I was hoping the inclusion of the suits and Zords in motion would help to amp my excitement. And yea, they looked cool and all, but I still wasn’t feeling it. I took some time after that to ponder on what was bothering me so much. What was it about this that was turning me off? It wasn’t the designs. I think the new suits look awesome, the redesign of Rita is really interesting, and Zordon looks cool as hell! Everything looks great! Well…not everything. I have no idea what the fuck that little metallic abomination was, but it wasn’t Alpha Five.

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Seriously, what the fuck is this?!

Visually, I’m pretty much on board. Much like the Transformers, seeing a modern re-imagining of my beloved Rangers and their kick-ass Zords is exciting. So why can I tell I’m in for disappointment just from seeing the trailer? Well…I think I finally figured it out.

Watch the trailer again and think about the original Rangers versus what you see. At one point one of them says “we’re all screw ups”. There was a reason I got a Breakfast Club vibe the first time I saw this: because they all seem to either always be in trouble or struggling to get their lives together. The Rangers I remember were confident and capable. They did well in school, they were model kids, they volunteered, helped their classmates, taught karate, and even showed empathy to Bulk and Skull-the school bullies. They weren’t trying to put their lives together, they were so capable they’d moved on to trying to help others achieve the same!

This issue cascades into the next problem. Towards the end of the trailer, Zordon says that the Rangers, “were born for this.” Um…no? The Power Rangers were not destined to become what they were. In fact, when Rita was freed and the Rangers were needed, Zordon called on Alpha to find some kids to take up the mantle. Jason, Billy, Kimberly, Zac, and Trini weren’t destined to be the Rangers or any of that Joseph Campbell heroes journey bullshit. They were selected because they were the perfect fit for the job.

Every time I re-watch this trailer, the wrongness becomes more apparent. They suddenly wake up with super powers? The Rangers didn’t have super strength. Hell, Billy had to learn martial arts from Jason and Zack after he become the Blue Ranger because the Puddy Patrol kept kicking his ass! All Zordon gave them was the suits, the weapons, and the Zords. The strength and talent were all their own. This is just another played-out version of ordinary kids get powers and then have to use them in order to defeat the big baddie.

This might all seem like fan-girl whining about it not being a perfect remake, but I think it goes way deeper than that. One of the reason people hold onto nostalgia so much isn’t just because of what we saw and heard, but what those things taught us. It’s about how the show, movie, etc. influenced us, changed us as people. We have piles of stories where ordinary people get some great power thrust upon them because of destiny or whatever and now everything is awesome. Power Rangers had a different lesson. The Rangers taught me that greatness is earned, that callings aren’t pre-ordained. The Rangers didn’t become heroes because they got colorful suits and giant robots. They got colorful suits and giant robots because the were already heroes and were ready to display that heroism on a larger scale. There was a need for heroes to battle a great evil and the best candidates for the job were given it.

To me at least, that’s what this reboot is missing. That’s the soul of the thing that’s been lost in translation. Remember, Power Rangers is still a thing! There are kids getting new episodes of this now! These are impressionable minds that will likely also want to see this movie. Where’s their lesson about striving to achieve rather than waiting for destiny to take hold? Where are their roll models for hard work, charity, friendship, forgiveness, perseverance, and good character? Where are the Rangers that earned the opportunity to power the mighty Megazord?

We don’t need more bland, paint-by-numbers, cookie-cutter, unoriginal, and uninspired rehashing of the same old stories but with a familiar logo slapped over it. If you want to bring back our old heroes, bring back the lessons they taught. Bring back the essence of what made them so important to us. When I see Power Rangers, I want to be reminded that nothing is earned without hard work and determination. If I wanted to see someone be thrust into a position of power they’re neither worthy of or ready for, I’ll just watch our new President.

-Faith

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Getting Transgender Characters Right

Between the show and the blog, we’ve had quite a bit of content lately discussing proper representation of LGBT characters and transgender characters especially. From Transparent to Anything to The Danish Girl, we’ve had plenty of instances where we’ve picked apart the representation and portrayal of transgender characters. And I’ve noticed that it’s mostly been focusing on the negative. Now, there’s a depressing reason for that, in that the vast…vast…VAST majority of transgender representation in media only falls on a spectrum between harmful at worst and problematic at best.

But there are some examples that not only cross the barrier separating okay but flawed from good but push on to actually outstanding. I’ve listed them a few times as comparisons here and there but I’ve not gotten any time to focus on them and really explain exactly what sets them apart as shining examples of transgender representation. Well, it’s time for them to get their moment to shine (plus I’ve always wanted to do my own BuzzFeed style top list) so here are my top three (sort of) examples of transgender characters done right and why.

Honerable Mention: Cremisius Aclassi – Dragon Age Inquisition

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This one is a honerable mention because I really wrestled with myself over whether or not to include it. As a person who shouts till she’s blue in the face that transgender characters need to be played by actual transgender people, including Cremisius (Crem)-who is voiced by a cisgender woman-seemed like sacrilege. In the end I decided to give it a partial pass since Crem still represents a lot of positive aspects of transgender character portrayal as well as being the absolute best example of trans in games that I can think of. Also, while I recognize as much as anyone that this is a cop-out excuse, voice acting is not the same as camera or stage acting and there are a ton of examples of voice actors playing characters of different races, genders, or ages than what they physically represent.

So yea, let’s at least discuss Crem. As video games have grown to be constructs of deep and complex narratives they’ve given us a way to interact with and understand stories that’s never been possible in any other medium. Remember the old choose your own adventure books where you’d come to a point where you could make a choice of where to go and flip to a different page depending on what storyline you chose? Well, video games have become an amazing realization of what those books were trying to achieve. Two people can play the exact same game and get almost completely different experiences. What you see, who you interact with, hell; even who your character falls in love with are all different depending on the choices you make in the game.

There is only one point in all of Dragon Age Inquisition where all players must see Crem. He’s standing outside the Temple in Haven wanting to talk to you as you pass him by. If you do pass him, if you do just ignore him and go about your game, that’s all there is to it. Crem (and subsequently his boss, Iron Bull) do not become a part of your adventure. If you do talk to him, you have the option of letting his band of mercenaries join your team. Beyond that you can interact with both he and Iron Bull through layers upon layers of optional dialogue. And it’s only when you venture deep into these conversations that you find out Crem is a transgender man.

And this gets to why I simply had to put Crem on this list. He’s a perfect tool for teaching the player what it’s like to meet a transgender person. If you just pass him by without talking to him, you’re absolutely none the wiser. If you talk to him, you’ll notice he has a few slightly feminine traits but pay it no mind. Even after you go kill monsters with him you’re still not privy to the secrets of his gender identity. It’s only through forming a deep relationship with him that you find out he’s transgender. So many people think all transgender people are obvious. To go back to the insufferable bathroom topic, people who are afraid of transgender people in the bathroom think they’re going to instantly recognize any they come across, or that they will somehow telegraph their transness to them. The truth is a lot of transgender people just blend in, and it’s none of your business unless they choose to let you know about it. Crem helps deliver this message in an interactive experience.

Plus, he’s badass.

Number 3: Sophia Burset – Orange is the New Black

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You all knew this would be on here but I bet you thought it would be number one. Sophia is a great character and I have a lot of good things to say about her, but she’s not my favorite. Still, this is her moment to shine so let’s put a spotlight on her and what the portrayal of her character does right. Firstly, she’s a transgender woman of color, and you will not find a more maligned demographic of people in America. Seriously, on a scale for people who have it rough in America simply because of who they are, I can’t think of any that have it worse. It’s vital that we get TWOC into the media because they are simply so invisible to the collective conscience.

Sophia actually isn’t a main character on OITNB. Cox only has a guest starring role each season so she doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. Still, the writers have done a great job making sure we get to know her just as well as we get to know all the other women and guards at Lichfield Prison. One of the fun things about OITNB is how many of the episodes each highlight one character and weave in scenes from their past that help us to understand how they wound up behind bars. Sophia got her back story told in the first season and it was beautifully executed.

(Spoilers for OITNB ahead!)

Laverne Cox has a twin brother in real life and that twin was called in to play pre-transition Sophia. This struck me as especially moving because, with how much entertainment media wants to cast cis people in trans rolls, the producers of OITNB basically had the perfect excuse to continue that trend but still chose to represent their trans character with a trans actress. If they had cast a cis male, the argument that the story called for the character to be seen both pre and post transition would have been viable…still upsetting, but viable. OITNB took the harder path in order to properly represent their transgender character and it paid off. Both of the twins gave wonderful performances and Cox’s brother’s portrayal of pre-transition Sophia was so spectacular it could have only come from someone who literally watched a loved one go through it in real life.

Now, each of the inmates’ back stories also lets us know how they came to be prisoners. When telling us the story of Sophia’s crime, the writers one again bypassed the easy road. If you’re trying to put a transgender prisoner in your story, especialla TWOC, and you need a crime for her to have committed, prostitute is the go-to. While it’s unfortunately true that a lot of transgender women, especially TWOC do end up selling their bodies in order to survive, as a narrative tool it’s old and boring. Still, it would have been effortless to just go that route. Again, the show is about criminals and they have a transgender character. The narrative is practically moving them towards it. But again, OITNB didn’t go the easy route. Instead, Sophia was busted committing credit card fraud in an attempt to bankroll her gender affirmation surgery. It’s creative, it works for her character, and it makes her more than a cliché. So bravo to the OITNB crew for giving us a well presented transgender woman at Litchfield Prison.

Number 2: Violet and Paige – Her Story

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Why the fuck did this not win an Emmy?

My love of Her Story should be pretty obvious at this point. This six-part mini series on YouTube is just beautiful. It has a great cast, it’s well-directed, and the story is quite compelling when you consider how many characters it follows for such a short amount of time. Her Story seems like one of those “will obviously be on this list” entries; it’s build from the ground up to let trans actors tell the story of trans characters. Well, you might be surprised to hear that I almost left it off this list for that very reason!

Let me explain. While I have nothing but love for this show, when I talk about proper representation of trans characters I’m often talking about integrating them into narratives we already have. Like I said in my criticisms of Strut, it just always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when proper representation of trans characters can only be found in media that exists largely just to have them in it. Doing so makes the fact that they’re trans have to be a major chunk of the story by default, thus making it feel like some extraordinary circumstance rather than just another way of being.

But I didn’t bring you here to talk about what’s wrong. In fact, it’s how Her Story triumphs over this problem that earned it a spot on this list. It’s a story that kinda has to put a lot of focus on the fact that the characters are trans, but the narrative allows more interesting things to be the real focus of each episode. Paige gets some great focus as a woman trying to make it as a lawyer, but it’s Jen Richard’s Violet that really gets to stand out. Her transgender status, instead of being the focus of her arch, is actually just an additional complication thrown into her quest to find love, get out of her abusive relationship with her boyfriend, and ultimately come to understand her own sexual orientation.

And that’s the part of Her Story that really grabs me. Highlighting that even a trans woman can find herself in an abusive relationship is good, but it’s the sexual orientation topic that sets this show apart. The T has long been a part of the LGBT movement, but that brings with it its own unfortunate misunderstandings. People tend to think of gender identity as a part of one’s sexual identity, and it’s a confusion that even crops up in the LGBT community itself. A transgender woman who is attracted to men is a heterosexual woman: not a gay man. Likewise, a cisgender lesbian who finds herself attracted to a transgender woman isn’t suddenly straight or bisexual. These are the issues Her Story tackles and it does so beautifully. As Violet explores her relationship with Allie (a cisgender lesbian), Allie’s friends call her sexual orientation into question. It’s these outside forces pushing against their relationship that take up the bulk of the story, not the fact that Violet or Paige are trans.

Number 1: Nomi Marks – Sense8

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I consider Sense8 to be one of the most underrated things ever on television. It’s a sci-fi series that comes to us courtesy of Lilly Wachowski, a transgender woman herself. Nomi isn’t necessarily the main character of the story, but the beauty of Sense8 is that no one is. All of the eight characters that share a psychic connection also share about equal screen time and story focus.

I did put these characters in a specific order and I consider Nomi to be the best representation of a transgender character I’ve ever seen. She exhibits many of the traits we’ve already touched on in other examples. She has a rich and compelling back story that isn’t saturated in her gender identity. She also lends more to the narrative than being a token character; she’s a bad-ass hacker. But there are two things about Nomi that really help her stand out to me.

The first one revolves around the story of Sense8 itself and thus I must put up another SPOILER WARNING. The story is about eight people who share a psychic connection. They are able to communicate with each other, mentally transfer themselves into the same place as each other, and even take over each other’s bodies in order to lend them their specific skills (seriously, why have you not watched this show?!) Each of the eight has their own unique talents which are helpful for the group to achieve their goals. There’s the fighter, the actor, the criminal mastermind, and in Nomi’s case, the hacker.

Notice I mentioned an actor. See, someone who doesn’t understand what it means to be transgender may be under the impression that being so is an act, that they’re pretending to be something they’re not. But when any of the eight need to call upon acting skills, they don’t call Nomi. It may seem like a small thing, but it helps to confirm to the audience that Nomi is Nomi and no one else.

The second thing I love about Nomi is a trait I’ve not seen well executed in any other trans character: she’s allowed to be sexy. Notice I didn’t say sexualized. We see that shit all the time. Trans women walking the streets in dark alleys are an often used as visual shorthand to add to the motif of a derelict urban environment. They convey sex, but are not meant to be something the audience actually finds attractive.

Sense8 introduces us to Nomi during a sex scene with her girlfriend Amanita. They’re both fully nude and the cinematography is utilized to highlight how sexy the bodies of both women are. Nomi’s breasts, hips, legs, etc. are all given the same care and framing any cis woman would be in a scene intended to get a reaction of erotic enjoyment from the audience. And this is nothing compared to her sex scene halfway through the series which is hands down the hottest sex scene I’ve ever witnessed in anything that wasn’t actual pornography.

I know there’s a lot of ire around the notion of portraying women, even cis women, as sexual objects, but when sex is tied to an already well-rounded character it’s actually a very positive thing. Nomi owns her sexuality. She consents to all sexual contacts in the story and they’re always with partners she feels safe with. She’s not being exploited, but rather allowed to own and be proud of her sexuality in a way we still don’t see with a lot of cis women on TV.

So see, entertainment media, it can be done. There are plenty of ways to properly portray transgender characters. They can be just as diverse, just as deep, and just as engaging as anyone else you write. So can we please try harder–if for no other reason than it’s more fun for me to write pieces like this than to drudge up another thousand words or so on how you fucked it up again.

-Faith

Trans-face: Exploiting Transgender Characters

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Once upon a time when I was in college, I took a creative writing class. We had to write short stories and have the class read/critique them. I wrote a story about a sniper who finds out his next hit is an old boyfriend. When I came to class the next day after everyone had read it, I kept hearing the same question: this is a really good story, but why did you make him gay? I thought it was a strange question so I asked why they wanted to know. ‘Being gay has nothing to do with the story,’ was the general complaint. ‘Why would you make the character gay if it was just some espionage thriller?’

Hopefully you already understand why this is a shitty thing to ask. I mean, why can’t my sniper be gay? I think he had dark hair, too, but no one asked how that was integral to the story. The LGBT community has always had trouble finding good representation in media. It’s thankfully gotten better since I was in school. I think of characters like Captain Holt on Brooklyn 99 and Connor from How To Get Away With Murder; gay characters whose sexual orientation has nothing to do with the core of the story. They’re just gay…and it’s normal. Because being gay is normal.

Sadly, the same kind of cultural enlightenment hasn’t been extended to transgender characters. First off, even having transgender characters in a mainstream piece of media is rare. With the notable exception (as always) of Orange is the New Black, there really aren’t any trans characters in big name shows or movies (and even Sophia is just an occasional guest star). The bulk of trans representation is currently restricted to small, art house productions as well as online shows like the phenomenal Her Story. Occasionally, directors with the glimmer of Oscar statues sparkling in their eyes will take on a project with or about a transgender woman.

Unfortunately, the directors who do this end up committing a greater sin than not representing trans people at all. They may want to have a trans woman in their story, maybe even portray her in a positive light, but all that gets undermined when they cast a cisgender male to play the part. You already know what I’m talking about. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and just announced; Matt Bomer in Anything. Critics call it inspiring. Hollywood calls it progressive. Wanna know what I call it?

Black-face.

Sound harsh? Sound like I’m blowing things out of proportion? Well, let’s take a look at what black-face (as a general term, not a literal comparison) is. It used to be that black people weren’t allowed to perform as actors, but script writers still wanted to include black characters in their stories. So they took white actors, painted them to look black, and had them perform the part. Fast forward to today, we have non-transgender actors and actresses being dressed up and “painted” to appear as transgender characters, therefore allowing the character to be portrayed by an actual transgender person. It’s no different. It’s the same exploitative practice with the same intent behind it and results from it. It’s trans-face

We can go into debates about levels of bigotry behind this and the practice of literal black-face decades ago, but nothing would change the fact that the actions are one in the same. When you physically alter a person to look like someone they’re not just to play a part instead of giving that part to an actual member of that demographic, you’ve committed the exact same act. What makes this even more astounding though is it’s being done in films that portray the transgender character in a positive way. These movies aren’t mocking their transgender characters, they’re not setting them up as villains or objects of disgust (well, not all of them). The filmmakers themselves genuinely seem to want to shine a light on the struggles, but the sentiment rings hollow when they don’t include actual transgender people in their cast. For fuck sake, transgender actresses like Jen Richards (Twitter: @SmartAssJen) even auditioned for it!

I’ve shared this concern with people before who didn’t understand my anger. “Why are you making such a big deal about it? They’re not demonizing the character. It looks like a positive movie.” And then there’s my favorite…”shouldn’t you just be happy that they have a transgender character at all?” No. No, I should not. I refuse to fall into that notion of beggars can’t be choosers. I don’t care if it means I never see another transgender character on the movie screen: if they cast a non-trans person to play the role, I will not see the film. That’s not even just a transgender sentiment. A lot of people thought the LGBT community should be thankful to the people who made Stonewall. Hey look, it’s a movie that champions your movement! It shines a spotlight on one of the most defining moments in your fight for equality! Aren’t you happy they made the movie and want to go see it over and over? No fucking way.

It’s funny, a lot of media, especially video games, get accused of “pandering” to LGBT people just for having a gay or trans character. Just simply having one is ‘pushing an agenda’ with the film. That’s not pandering. That’s just having a diverse cast. But movies like Stonewall are pandering because they assume we’ll be thrilled just because you bothered to do it at all. Sorry, but no. We have more respect for ourselves and our history than to sell out to your white-washed, revisionist garbage.

To bring that back home, I don’t care if the transgender character in your movie is a positive character. I don’t care if you’re making them the hero. You didn’t let an actual transgender actor/actress with aspirations to be a big movie star get one of the very few roles even possibly written for them. I don’t need to know anything about your movie other than that, because that tells me that your compassion is only skin deep. We may get next to nothing, but we will at least demand what we get is worthy of our praise.

This whole problem goes deeper than most people realize, especially those making the film. Going back to the black-face thing, transgender people have to overcome an extra hurdle when it comes to acceptance. Racists look at black people and say, “I know you’re there, but I still hate you.” But our bigots look at us and say, “you don’t really exist; you don’t deserve anything just for wanting to be something you’re not.”Bigots say they hate our sin and not us, feeling justified in their notion that who we are is a matter of choice.

I said back in my post about the Rocky Horror advertisement that, while media can be targeted to a certain audience, the marketing and news for that media will be consumed by all. Those people saying transgender experiences aren’t real have their ignorance backed up every time a cisgender man portrays a transgender woman. It just further insinuates that being transgender is just cross dressing and pretending to be something you’re not. That same actor wearing makeup and a dress on the screen will be on the red carpet during the premier in a black suit, and everyone will see that. It will color their perception of the transgender community. These movies exacerbate already damaging misunderstandings about transgender people, and lives are on the line.

And even if we could move past this and get actual transgender people to play transgender characters…can we please be something other than sex workers? Look, I’m not looking down on sex work. I have a great deal of respect for it and think it gets about as bad a reputation as transgender people. I’m just sick of it being the only way Hollywood knows to represent us. There are indeed a lot of transgender sex workers as it’s often the only kind of work trans women can find and there are a lot of cis men with a fetish for us. The slur tr**ny exists because the porn industry created a whole genre for guys who get off fucking transgender women. Hollywood knows this. In fact, it seems to be the only thing they know about transgender women, so they overuse it. It’s like how they can’t seem to think of a way to make a cis woman seem dark and angsty without getting her raped. It’s lazy and perpetuates already tired stereotypes.

I for one will never be desperate enough to just take whatever is tossed to me. I will not hold back criticism just because a piece of media acknowledged I exist. People say change comes slowly, and that’s often true. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept slow when it doesn’t have to be. I don’t want to wait until I’m an old woman to see authentic representation of my community in big budget movies. You can call me ungrateful, but I’d rather think of myself as knowing I’m worth more than what I’ve been given. These movie makers aren’t doing us any favors by hiring cis men to pretend to be us. All that does is make things worse.

And to Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer: Shame on you. For fucking shame! I always thought better of the both of you. You’re each fine actors and have done wonderful things for many good causes. I don’t know. Maybe this only further highlights just how little understanding there really is about the transgender community. If one of Hollywood’s biggest names when it comes to social progression teams up with an outwardly gay actor to make a movie with a transgender character and even they can’t get it right, things may be worse than I thought.

-Faith